Is there any harmony to be found between what we read in the epistles of Paul and the epistle of James? Certainly! The Bible does not contain contradictions. Although, this one seems to be an apparent oversight because both make the exact opposite argument of what it means to have “works.” Both use the example of Abraham in exactly opposite ways; Paul citing the by faith Abraham was credited with righteousness, and James asks the rhetorical question of Abraham being justified by the work of offering up Isaac on the altar. So what do we do with this as Christians?
Not attempting to make a book out of this I will jump right to the solution. When we talk about faith there is an old theological formula that states, “Justification is by faith alone, but by a faith that is never alone”. This refers to faith as what alone unites us to Christ, thus faith is Christ is salvific, because it is the lone instrument by which we believe and rest upon the promise of God to save us by the work of Christ done on our behalf. Now as faith is also a gift of the grace and mercy of God, so are all the other blessings that come from being united to Christ, adoption, sanctification and so forth. So if one has faith, then they must, by the necessity of the spiritual union with Christ, be in the process of sanctification and so performing works according to that new nature (taught by Paul in Eph. 2:10). So Faith is what unites us to Christ, so it is alone what is deemed the appropriate instrument of salvation used by God. Yet, good works should always accompany such a faith, as giving testimony and proof to it being there, yet are not in fact “faith” but are “works” flowing from faith.
So then what is Paul and James talking about if the above is true? Simply that each on is focused on highlighting one of the two aspects discussed above because of their audience. On one hand Paul (especially in Galatians) teaches that faith is the alone instrument of salvation. He is clear that works do not sway God into beginning or preserving our salvation. Works come and go and are done by everyone for various reasons, but faith in Christ affects one’s personal salvation and standing before God. It is what matters and what, to Paul, generates the gratitude to want to do good works for God. Paul challenges the do-gooders Jews and Gentiles alike that good works alone do not atone for sin and do not merit grace from God like a balance scale or vending machine.
James on the other hand challenges the lazy who claim they have faith and so think they can go on sinning. They do not heed Paul’s rebuke that we cannot, as saved, continue in sin any longer (Romans 6:1-13). James chastens that Abraham, because of faith, acted and performed the works he was led to accomplish, and so we see the same thing with all the OT saints (Hebrews 11, “by faith…”). James does not deny the aspect or salving nature of faith, but only highlights that if what a person calls faith is true and living then the accompaniment of works and other gifts must also be present. And so too with Paul, for all the doctrine he gives us on faith alone, still teaches that works are of great importance in the Christian life, but he is clear to ensure that by works we do not follow the path of the Jews and make works a part of why we are saved.